5 Things To Know Before Your First Time as DM

I’ll be honest, when I grew up, Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t a game that ever appealed to me. If had friends who played it, they kept it very secretive. So it wasn’t until I started working for Geek & Sundry that I started to learn more about the game. Honestly, it sounded cool. I loved Skyrim, and D&D felt like a game that was basically a tabletop version of that. Once Critical Role premiered and I got to watch the adventurers of Vox Machina do their thing, my desire to play was only strengthened. However, there was one specific role that appealed to me. While I loved watching the players unfurl the story before them and try to solve the puzzles put forth by Matt Mercer, I realized that I wanted to do what Matt does. I wanted to be a Dungeon Master.

The thing with games like Dungeons & Dragons is that there are so. many. rules. It’s an intimidating game to start from scratch, and it’s even scarier to decide you want to try being a DM when you’ve never played the game before. I decided I was only going to play if I could find a group of friends who were willing to explore the game with me. Finally, I found that group of friends, and tried out DMing a couple of times.

The learning curve for this game and being a DM is pretty steep, so even though I’m an extremely new DM (like SUPER green, y’all), there are a few, basic things that I have learned about kicking off your first run as Dungeon Master (illustrated with Critical Role gifs, because obviously).

Do your homework

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This is a big game. While you don’t need to be an expert at the game, as DM–especially if you’re playing with an entire group of D&D first-timers like I was–your friends will look to you for answers. There is no way you’ll know the game inside and out before you start your first game, but there are plenty of resources to make sure you have a strong enough grasp on the game to make you feel less shaky when your friends ask you a question about the game. Geek & Sundry has a lot of great resources for DMs of all skill levels, and there is a great YouTube series by DM-extraordinaire Matthew Colville that can also help you get started. There are lots of books you can buy that are good for a DM to have, but if you’re just trying on the game and role of DM for size, I wouldn’t recommend buying more than the Players’ Handbook and downloading basic rules from Wizards of the Coast.

Keep your first campaign simple

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The thing about D&D is that it’s a really long game. If you end up buying the D&D starter kit, there is a pre-made campaign included with the kit. That’s a great one, but it could take you quite a while to work through it. Still, the thought of writing your own campaign might really freak you out. So don’t feel like you have to create your own, crazy campaign for your first experience with D&D. Instead, let yourself use some pre-generated campaigns. Use the starter kit campaign if you want (knowing you probably won’t finish it in your first session), or use another pre-generated campaign like the one Matthew Colville introduces in his Running the Game series. Just don’t let using a pre-generated campaign be an excuse for you to not read the campaign ahead of time. You’ll want to know the story as well as you can, even though you get to read as you go. Trust me.

You’re gonna mess up…just know that now

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It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, you’re going to mess up, and that’s okay. The good news is that because you’re running the game, it is possible that you can simply roll with it and the players might not even know. But even if you mess up in a noticeable way, just be cool. This game has a lot of rules and nuances, and it will take a while before you feel like you’re a “good” DM.

You’re not going to be Matt Mercer, but that’s good!

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We don’t need two Matt Mercers in the world. While he’s a great DM, and it’s awesome to aspire to his passion for the game and his creativity, you won’t be him. Don’t make your bar of being a “good” DM to become Matt Mercer. You’re going to be your own style of Dungeon Master, and that’s what is going to make you awesome. It will take you some time to find your DM style (I’m definitely still finding mine), but remember that you’re playing a game with your friends. As long as you’re having fun and getting into the game as much as your buds, you’ll be as awesome to your group as Matt Mercer is to Vox Machina. This is even more true if you and your friends are all playing for the first time. None of you knows what to expect, so just have a fun time without trying to be someone else!

Your friends will do something you weren’t expecting

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Like I’ve said, I’m a very, very new DM, but each time I’ve played my friends have made choices that have surprised me. While you can’t help but try to anticipate their reactions to the story you set before them, it’s inevitable that they’ll look at the story and see a solution you weren’t expecting. That’s what makes this game cool! So while it may throw you for a loop, and you might have to think about the best way to make your universe interact with that unexpected choice made by your players, roll with it! So long as they play by the basic rules of your world, let them try it and see what happens. Be flexible and willing to adapt your story based on how your friends perceive the story, even if it catches you off guard. Besides, those are usually where the coolest in-games stories come from!

This game can be an intimidating one to start, and an even more intimidating one to run. So the best piece of advice I can give is to play with a bunch of friends that you trust, and who will give you the grace and the space to figure out what being a DM looks like to you. And though it’s totally cliché, the best advice to remember when running your first game is to have fun. It’s just a game, so if you get so stressed out that the game isn’t fun for you, it won’t be fun for your friends either. Things might be messy when you guys first start playing, but just let yourself keep learning, improving, and having fun.

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Have you been a DM before? What are some tips that you have for newbies? What tips do you have for new D&D players, DM or not? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

9 thoughts on “5 Things To Know Before Your First Time as DM

  1. bipdoosj says:

    Great tips for beginners, or any level actually. Started playing in 1985, I have DMed at for years at game stores, private groups and Conventions.
    One principle, “you can never be over prepared, but you cannot prepare for everything”, this especially applies to House Rule games and campaigns designed by the DM.
    Allow characters some flexibility, always, but never allow blatant deviation from their original role. An LG fighter will never kill for fun, but a NE rogue might take money to poison a well.
    If the characters form a cohesive party during battle, don’t be concerned about bickering during downtime (I had a group that would do “dwarf tossing” at taverns with their Dwarf Cleric, but could clear a dungeon in one night). Siblings in groups will generally demonstrate the previous point to an extreme.
    Don’t just stick to D&D, try other games to find what suits your group best, basically, you are gamers, not just D&Ders. Some gamers who don’t do well in D&D perform great in Pathfinder, Rifts, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020, Champions, or Savage Worlds.
    Also, read the Dungeon Master’s Guide, any of them (original to 5e). The rules get tweaked, but the info and tips about running a game, using plot points, writing a campaign, etc stay pretty much the same for nearly all genres. Grab a worldbuilding book or two or sign up for a free newsletter offered by a worldbuilding group. If you can design a world or city, you will have campaigns for any group.
    Be careful of “Rules Lawyers”, who attempt to usurp the game and control from the DM. You can either ban them (cutting down the group and can cause resentment) or exploit the “House Rules”, which basically means the DM is final authority (essentially every DM Guide says that, so long as you are fair and not a “party killer” DM).
    Fun is the primary aspect of the game, that includes the DM having fun. Also consider rotating the DM position after 1 or 2 campaigns. That way, every person gets a chance to play and run a scenario, experiencing both sides of the table.

  2. Will_GSRR says:

    I recently started playing D&D and I like the idea of being a DM, but I can’t see myself taking it on for a while. My group is mostly new people to it bar the DM and one other. It’s been super fun to play.

    I know what you mean about players doing things you aren’t expecting. In my case it was me who did the random thing, we’re playing ‘Lost Mines of Phandelver and at one point I decided to roll play as a Dentist to check on some animals and get in to one place, our DM did not expect it all, but rolled with it, I think he was secretly hoping I’d fail my rolls so I’d get found out, but I didn’t.

    That’s what I love about it though, it can just be so random.

    Maybe one day I’ll take on the roll of DM.

      • Paul-NL says:

        Dankeschön 😀

        Also, do you share your posts on any other websites? I work over at Creators .Co (we’re part of Movie Pilot and Now Loading) and this is the sort of content that makes for an interesting read. If you were open to the idea of posting your work on our Creators site in addition to also having your blog/site here, I’d be more than happy to help you get started. My e-mail and more info can be found on my page. (o^.^)b

  3. kaycreate says:

    While I absolutely love playing D&D I am still wholly intimidated at the idea of being a DM. I think I’d need to do a lot more consistent play before wanting to tackle that bridge! My partner wants to try a hand at it for when we make a new campaign though, which should be fun! I hope to get a lot more D&Ding done in 2017!

    • Kendall Ashley says:

      Being a DM is totally intimidating! I think the only reason I had the guts to try was because I did it with friends who were also total D&D newbies. You should totally give it a shot some time! Hope 2017 has a lot of D&D in store for you!

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